AUGUSTA (AP) – A Superior Court judge has reversed a decision by Maine’s secretary of state to accept petitions promoting a far-reaching package of government spending caps after the expiration of a one-year time limit.

The ruling by Justice Donald Marden, dated April 3 and circulated on Tuesday, would, if left to stand, block a statewide vote on the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights championed by anti-tax activist Mary Adams of Garland.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap and a citizen challenger, veteran political activist Kathleen McGee of Bowdoinham, have been at odds over whether the spending cap initiative should have been green-lighted for voter consideration.

A state lawyer arguing for Dunlap asserts that Dunlap had the discretion to count petition signatures submitted by proponents after what had been widely regarded as a statutory filing deadline.

But lawyers for McGee, who challenged Dunlap’s action, maintain that the secretary of state’s acceptance of some petitions was illegal.

Siding with McGee in a 22-page decision, Marden wrote that “while it is soundly argued that a secretary of state’s responsibility is to protect the inherent right of the voters submitting the petition, this court would suggest that it is the responsibility of the secretary of state to protect the process on behalf of all the citizens of the state.”

Dunlap said his office would review the decision and consider whether to appeal.

“There was an apparent conflict between the statute and the Constitution,” Dunlap said in an impromptu interview. “The court has taken an affirmative stand that we were in error and ultimately they are the final arbiter.”

McGee could not be reached immediately for comment by telephone and a lawyer representing her did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Adams said a review by the state supreme court had been all but inevitable.

“We were expecting to end up there anyway because the other side would have appealed,” Adams said, suggesting now she could bring an appeal herself.

On Feb. 21, Dunlap ruled that enough valid petition signatures were submitted last fall to place the spending cap proposal on Maine ballots later this year unless lawmakers approve the measure first.

Dunlap, while clearing the way for legislative consideration and a potential popular vote, also disclosed that the citizen initiative campaign would have failed if state officials had not chosen to accept all of the petitions.

Organizers needed to submit at least 50,519 valid signatures. On Oct. 21, 2005, a Friday which had been treated as the deadline, petitions containing 54,127 signatures were filed with the secretary of state.

On the next business day, Monday Oct. 24, another batch of petitions bearing 4,024 signatures was submitted.

In the end, Dunlap said, 6,540 signatures were found to be invalid, leaving the number of valid signatures at 51,611 – 1,092 more than required.

The failure to deliver all the petitions by the earlier date was attributed to an oversight.

The so-called TABOR initiative, based on a Colorado voter-approved constitutional amendment, would limit annual spending increases for state and local governments and schools to the rate of inflation plus increases in population.

The proposal calls for the return of 80 percent of excess revenues to taxpayers, with 20 percent going to a rainy day government fund.

Voter approval would be required to increase taxes or fees or to weaken the spending cap.

Maine’s constitution requires that, in second regular sessions of a Legislature which this year opened on Jan. 4, petitions are to be filed with the secretary of state on or before the 25th day after lawmakers convene.

The state constitution also says “no signature older than one year from the written date on the petition shall be valid.”

State law establishes a date of issuance – in this case, Oct. 21, 2004 – on which the secretary of state provides an approved form of a petition to an applicant and mandates that signed petitions must be filed within one year.

“The constitutional requirement of submission to the Legislature provides a deadline designed to assure the legislative body will have sufficient time within its statutory calendar to give proper consideration to the question and to any competing measure should it so decide,” Marden wrote in his ruling.

“This purpose is a separate and distinct matter of public policy from assuring the absence of fraud in the constitutional signature age requirement given the limited time and capabilities of the office of the secretary of state,” the judge wrote.

Maine is already feeling the first impact of a property tax reform effort that dates to a citizen initiative focusing on local school funding that was approved by referendum in June 2004. Subsequent legislation imposed annual growth limits on government spending.

According to the administration of Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, as well as the Maine Municipal Association and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, there have been signs of a spending slowdown.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center has been allied with Adams in support of a Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

On Tuesday, some state lawmakers who had voiced concerns about the case or the citizen initiative expressed satisfaction with the Superior Court ruling.

“It would be unfair to previous petitioners who have failed to meet the one-year deadline for gathering signatures to now accept the late TABOR petitions,” Democratic Sen. Ethan Strimling of Portland said in a statement.

Also endorsing the decision was House Speaker John Richardson, D-Brunswick.

“The ruling by Justice Marden clearly and correctly interprets the statute that all other signature collectors have abided by. While Secretary of State Dunlap has worked very hard to be fair to all groups circulating petitions, I think his decision would have led to unclear rules related to filing deadlines,” Richardson said in a statement.

AP-ES-04-04-06 1438EDT